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Offshore Oil No Burning Issue in '86 but It's Still on the Ballot

November 01, 1986|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

Less than a year ago, the debate over offshore oil drilling was among the hottest political issues in San Diego County. For good reason.

In February, federal officials announced that tracts off the county's coast would be retained as part of a planned five-year offshore oil leasing program. That revelation had many residents of the county's coastal cities up in arms, fearful that oil derricks would soon be sprouting from the pristine waters off their shores.

With the smoke of that political gun battle still in the air, it is something of a surprise that a pair of measures dealing with the offshore oil issue on Tuesday's ballot have attracted little more than a yawn.

The nearly identical measures--Proposition B in San Diego and Proposition S in Oceanside--would prohibit either municipality from issuing permits for the construction, operation or maintenance of pipelines, refineries and other facilities that would be needed for offshore oil drilling.

Since oil reserves off the county's coast are considered to be minimal, the idea is to make offshore drilling more expensive so oil companies will avoid exploring the local waters under any federal leasing plan.

Supporters of the two measures maintain that the proposals have engendered little debate this election season primarily because the notion of an oil-facilities ban enjoys widespread backing.

Indeed, no vocal opposition to the ballot measures has surfaced in either city. Although many local officials expected the oil industry to come out strongly against the ballot measures, no opposition campaign has been mounted.

"I'd like to assume that the oil industry has realized that public opinion is squarely against them," said San Diego Councilman Ed Struiksma, the principal architect of Proposition B. "Also, they probably realize that the oil reserves off our coast simply aren't enough to warrant spending the kind of money they would have to spend to overcome the opposition to offshore oil drilling in this area."

Perhaps more importantly, the issue in recent months has lost some of its urgency after congressional opponents of drilling pushed through legislation delaying federal lease sales of offshore tracts until February, 1989.

Nonetheless, Struiksma and other backers of the two ballot measures contend that the time to act is now. When the offshore tracts do go up for sale, they warn, coastal cities must be ready.

"We feel the delay was a good thing," said Dana Whitson, Oceanside's special projects director, "but we still have to keep up the fight because it's only a matter of time before the federal government and the oil companies make their move to invade our coastline again."

While no high-stakes effort to oppose the ballot measures has been launched, industry observers are monitoring the election results with interest.

Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Western Oil & Gas Assn., said he understands the appeal the two propositions have for coastal residents, but argued that many aspects of the issue have been glossed over.

In particular, Fergus suggested, approval of the propositions would remove the cities from the decision-making process should the oil industry launch drilling operatings off the county's coast. Because of that, he said, the local cities could not provide input on issues such as how oil is transported.

"They would be cutting off their nose to spite their face," Fergus said. "They're removing themselves from the decision-making process and all the influential roles."

Struiksma rejected that argument, maintaining that local governments will certainly be able to provide input should oil drilling take place offshore.

"If oil drilling occurs off San Diego's coastline, we will have a voice in what is done," Struiksma said. "They might not like what we say, but we will be involved, you can rest assured of that."

The councilman and other officials have been eager to block offshore oil drilling because of concerns that spills could hurt the area's multimillion-dollar tourism industry. In addition, they have argued that oil drilling could create navigational hazards for military and recreational vessels and worsen air and water quality.

Fergus of the Western Oil & Gas Assn., a trade group representing oil industry interests in seven Western states, counters that such concerns are unfounded.

The oil industry has earned "an exemplary record" in recent years, operating with only minimal problems with spills, Fergus said. Moreover, he pointed to Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, where ongoing drilling operations have not stood in the way of that region's booming tourist industry.

Finally, there remains the issue of the need for the country to develop its oil reserves, he said. Only by exploring and drilling in potentially oil-rich areas such as the coastal waters off San Diego County can the United States wean itself from a dependency on foreign oil, industry officials maintain.

Such arguments send shivers through anti-drilling advocates such as Whitson. As she sees it, even a voter-approved ban on onshore oil facilities might tumble if federal officials chose to preempt the local law because of concern for national interests.

Nonetheless, a locally approved initiative might make federal preemption more difficult from a political standpoint, she said. Aside from San Diego and Oceanside, about a dozen cities and counties up and down the California coast have either approved or placed on the ballot similar propositions.

"What we're hoping is that this will be a kind of straw vote on how voters feel about offshore oil drilling," Whitson said. "We hope it will send a strong message to both the federal government and the oil industry that people don't support offshore oil drilling."

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